Monday, December 12, 2011
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What do you say about legislators with a popularity rating in the single digits? That would be the U.S. Congress last month, scoring an all-time low of just 9%, according to a New York Times poll. Because policymakers like to make comparisons, consider that the politically unpopular bankers got a 23% approval ranking, and the BP oil spill was "liked" by 16% of the American public. By comparison, it is worth mentioning that during the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon's approval rating never went below 23%. The problem in Washington is that our elected officials in Congress seem to care little about the public's approval. If they felt otherwise, they might not let us down so often.
While most of their colleagues were out of town for the Thanksgiving recess, the 12 bipartisan members of the supercommittee—officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—threw in the towel and came up empty-handed after three months of open hearings and closed-door talks. Their legislative charge had been to produce a blueprint for $1.2 trillion in savings toward reducing the size of the federal deficit. Congress seems to have its eye on the big picture to ensure reelection and party control, while for the American people the big picture is creating jobs and improving the economy.
Something's not working. It's called governing. Nothing seems to move on a large scale without the threat of a deadline unmet or fiscal catastrophe in its place. So went the last-minute agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling—a negotiation that created the supercommittee. The threat of automatic spending cuts in the event of a failed deficit reduction deal seems not to worry legislators in Washington: those cuts won't take place until 2013. That leaves a whole year for representatives and senators to look for ways to pass new legislation aimed at avoiding the cuts. Already, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has said he wants to exempt the military from the automatic cuts. Half the spending reductions would come from the security side of the budget and the other from the rest of federal appropriations.
When we step back from the big-picture scenario, Congress has been able to get its work done, with the intention at least of meeting schedules, so long as they can be flexed. Three appropriations bills, combined into a single spending package, have passed Congress, along with a second continuing resolution carrying fiscal 2012 spending at 2011 levels until December 16. The funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been passed on the House floor at $135 million, and the Senate appropriators have okayed a companion bill maintaining the NEA money at the 2011 level of $155 million. Work isn't done on the final spending measure requiring agreement between the two chambers, but at least the parameters have been set for reaching an agreement. What's more, House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee chair Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) succeeded in shepherding a bill through the House that preserves the congressional mandate allocating 40% of NEA program funds to the states, and directing the NEA to consult with the states on important matters such as defining the requirements for state matching funds and the conditions for waiver of the match.
Some good news comes out of the Senate, too. The Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions approved with bipartisan support a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, languishing on the congressional to-do list for the past four or five years. The measure, sponsored by the committee's chair, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), and its ranking Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), supports arts education by maintaining the arts as a core academic subject and broadening the opportunities in the statute for funding support of activities addressing the core subjects.
The big picture may be too full of oversized consequences for our federal legislators to take on the serious task of governing. At least on some of the details, such as federal support for the arts and priorities in education, they get it right.